The God Complex is an amazing, ground breaking episode, but there are a couple of major problems with it that I am going to get out of the way straight away, because I really don’t want to end up wrapping up a review of a brilliant episode on a negative. So let’s start by looking at the areas where it goes wrong, and it does go horribly wrong on a couple of occasions.
The only problem that affects the coherence of the story is the episode’s placement. This was written originally for the previous series and got bumped for a year, and it really shows because this doesn’t fit here. We think what we are seeing is all about fear, but it turns out to be more about faith, and part and parcel of that is Amy’s faith in the Doctor. It has to be broken, but before that can happen it is shown to be unshakeable. That makes perfect sense in terms of the Doctor’s childhood hero status in Amy’s life, and would have worked perfectly a year before, but just look at the run of stories leading up to this. In the very last episode Amy witnessed the Doctor basically execute her older self with little compunction, taking the “can’t be helped” line. And it is not so very long since he failed to stop her baby from being stolen from her. The fact that this has been glossed over is the single biggest failing of this series because, believe me, it would be eating away at a mother to the exclusion of all else. So, childhood hero or not, it is simply not reasonable to portray Amy at this point as somebody who has unshakeable faith in the Doctor. Big Finish really need to stick a load of stories with the Doctor being completely brilliant between The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex at some point in future, to make this all make sense. So this episode works much better when viewed in isolation.
The other mistake is a lesser problem for the episode as a whole, but is something that would jump out as inappropriate in a 1960s episode, and certainly has no place in one from this decade. The Doctor takes Amy to task for not taking Rory’s surname, and suggests that it indicates a lack of commitment. You could try to apologise for this in the context of the Doctor trying to shake her faith, in some kind of a warped rerun of the Third Doctor in The Daemons, but that’s nothing to do with his ability to save her and it certainly doesn’t come across like that. It is shown unflinchingly as the Doctor giving Amy some home truths and him being on the right side of the argument. And that is utterly revolting.
I would like to think I am more qualified than most to discuss this, as my wife took exactly the same decision as Amy and kept her surname, and it was a decision I wanted her to take. I have no issues with couples who choose to keep the tradition, but I will not accept any suggestion that it is somehow the right thing to do, when it is a tradition that has everything to do with the man’s possession of the woman and serves no logical purpose. It has had zero bearing on our lives, beyond one moment when a bank seemed to have difficulty failing to grasp the concept that you could be married and not have the same surname. So it is a relic of the past that harks back to something pretty unpleasant, and an attempt to balance things and work it in the other direction in the way that Amy and Rory choose to do is something to be celebrated. To suggest that it has anything to do with a lack of commitment, when it is in fact all about an unwillingness to be pigeonholed as a possession, is one of the most sexist remarks Doctor Who has ever come up with, far more insidious than things like the Second Doctor sending Polly off to make tea, and I don’t expect to see that in a 2011 episode.
So now we’ve got that unpleasant bit out of the way, let’s breathe a sigh of relief and look at all the things that make this one of the best episodes of Doctor Who of the modern era, and in many ways a template for things to come. The reason I say that is that the camera work is incredibly inventive. Nearly every Doctor Who story presents the narrative as it would be seen from the point of view of an extra silent person in the room, or, well, as a camera in the room would see it. It’s a show and tell method. There are lots of little clever deviations from that from even the very early days such as the Dalek eye view, but by and large that is what you get. This is very different because when you do get a traditional POV it is often done with actual security cameras in the hotel, in a nice utilisation of recent horror techniques as perfected by Paranormal Activity. Doctor Who should borrow that more often. As for the rest of it, well it’s a mishmash of different points of view, often as seen by one of the characters in the episode, often a reflection of their descents into insanity that is not a literal view of what either an observer or the victim would see. This is a step up in directorial terms, and eventually the directorial flourish of the camera as more than just a view on the narrative will become much more prevalent in Doctor Who.
The hotel setting and its use to generate fear is a brilliant move. The source is obvious, The Shining, and it’s a very good choice of inspiration because it transitions well into Doctor Who simply because it’s a good concept that is a bit creepy and not too disturbing for children watching. Lots of people will probably disagree with me here, but The Shining is one of the least frightening of the well-known horror movies. Apart from some few-and-far-between scary moments it can be barely even described as a horror, more of a highly effective thriller. So it is mild enough that Doctor Who can borrow some of its best bits without traumatising everyone. Let’s face it, this isn’t The Exorcist. Doctor Who couldn’t come within a mile of paying homage to that.
So the borrowed concept is great but is actually not frightening enough for Doctor Who (!) so some more scares have to be added into the mix. You might find some of the phobias shown here amusing, but laughing and feeling a bit unsettled at the same time is a perfectly valid reaction to a fear (Doctor Who’s most basic trick is to combine humour and fear), and the phobias are all ones that could genuinely affect people, the strongest being the clown and the ventriloquist dummies. Both of which are frankly terrifying things if you think about them too much.
But the best thing about this episode is not the scares but the complexity with which it tackles the subject of faith. We all know what “The God Complex” means, but that is not really what the title of this episode is about. It’s a superficial interpretation and not particularly relevant to the plot. No, it’s referring to the complexity of faith, in an episode that is deliberately ambiguous on the topic. A more lazy writer would have shown faith as synonymous with superstition, and something for a rational mind to overcome, but Toby Whithouse goes out of his way to show both sides of the coin, with faith also being a strength that keeps people going through adversity far longer than a lack of faith would have done. That’s why it is being fed off of, because it’s powerful. So faith is simultaneously deconstructed and validated, with Amy’s faith in the Doctor shown as needing to be broken, but at the same time completely valid: he does in fact do exactly what she believes he will, and saves her. The whole process comes at a cost, with the Doctor ending the story alone in the TARDIS where he must ultimately end up at the twilight of every companion’s journey, but this is far from being all over… RP
The view from across the pond:
Hotels are meant to be little respites for travelers; a home-away-from-home for travelers the world over. But sometimes, hotels (and their less beloved counterparts, motels) are thought of as places of danger. Psycho’s Bates Motel robbed us of our comfort for showering while away from home. The Shining did a far more impressive job turning an entire hotel into a place of abject terror and this hotel looks like it belongs to Jack Torrence (the villain of The Shining). And it’s just such a hotel we find ourselves visiting in The God Complex. Sometimes, the setting is only part of the fear – it’s the emptiness that’s jarring. Both The Shining and Halloween II put the viewer in places that should be teeming with life (a hotel and a hospital). The fact that both are devoid of other people is disconcerting in the extreme. On top of that, something is on the prowl, increasing the tension. But wait, there’s more: “He is going to feast”, “Praise Him…” Unsettling phrases that tell the audience that something is deeply wrong, but we don’t know what.
The God Complex does all of these things and it does them well. Each room holds something the inhabitants fear… customizable fear rooms. TERRIFYING! The God Complex is a good story that seems to sit strangely at the latter part of season 6 but it works well on many levels. The fear factor is kept high by the aforementioned elements, and the characters are great. The triumvirate of the Doctor, Rory and Amy is fantastic, elevated even higher by a great ending. However, Rita (Amana Karan) is without a doubt the standout guest star. Howie, Gibbis and Joe are alright characters but their fates don’t elicit the same response as Rita’s. As demonstrated by Matt Smith’s superbly acted reaction, Rita’s death hits much harder because she would have been an awesome companion. I wax nostalgic for the days when companions were spontaneous and didn’t need a press announcement to join the TARDIS. I would have loved for Rita to travel with the Doctor for at least a couple of stories. Now, like a Bond girl, it seems we need a major announcement before new travelers enter our favorite time machine. But just now and then, a traveler could come along for an episode or two, like Adam in Dalek/The Long Game. Maybe they can just be a bit more likable….
There are some repeat motifs in this story that echo back through Who-history. The Doctor pushing Amy to lose her faith in him is a direct repeat of what the 7th Doctor does to Ace in The Curse of Fenric. It’s actually a brilliant concept though: the idea that faith can be used against us. Genre viewers know it’s faith that saves us from vampires more so than the cross itself. But here, faith works against us; it’s an interesting commentary at any rate, if we dig into it a bit. There’s also a “Face of Boe” style message directed at the Doctor as the minotaur accepts his fate. Less ominous than Boe’s, if a bit more depressing. Lastly, as readers may recall in my Horror of Fang Rock review, I commented that I didn’t like the Doctor making derogatory comments about the Rutan’s looks. Here, he’s back on form and, like with the werewolf of Tooth and Claw, the Doctor sees the creature and calls it beautiful. It’s such a subtle touch, but it adds something that proves how drastically different the Doctor is from us – he sees beauty in all forms of life, and that’s great. And for the record, he’s right: this creature looks stunning.
The idea of an enemy that reacts purely on instinct is great. There’s something marvelous in the idea and I’d love to see more stories like this, where the creature can’t be reasoned with. Like Alien, this is not something we can talk down. This one is intelligent, but can’t fight his own instinct. We also discover that it’s related to the Nimon but sadly no Soldeed tagging along (…long live Soldeed!). (Gibbis is an alright character, but no Soldeed!)
If I have one complaint about the episode, it has to do with the Doctor’s door. When the Doctor looks inside room 11, he says “who else?” Note, he does not say “what else”! When we eventually learn what it is that he sees a few episodes later, it’s not a WHO, but a WHAT. I found that very distasteful. Otherwise it’s a great story.
It ends with one of those old-school “epilogues” mostly lost to the original series. Here, The Doctor has a moment with Amy and Rory where he “saves them”, giving them a home and a car, to Rory’s delight. It’s a bit of foreshadowing of what’s yet to come.
Doctor Who doesn’t always get it right but it’s always willing to try new things and its flexible format makes that easy. And by my reckoning, the Doctor is one of the best in all of science fiction lore. I may be attracting unwanted attention by saying this, but I have faith that he will never be usurped.
Praise him! …or her, as it were…or will be! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Closing Time